Life for residents of Newtown, Connecticut, changed forever exactly three years ago, on Dec. 14, 2012, when a gunman stormed into Sandy Hook Elementary School killing 20 children and six adults.
Three years later, many in Newtown are still reeling from the trauma of that day, which has only been made worse by news of other mass shootings including the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris and the Dec. 2 San Bernardino massacre.
Still, resilience, hope and goodness have prevailed as residents try to lift each other up.
Several days after the tragedy, Newtown resident Rick Haylon created an organization, Ben’s Lighthouse, named after a six-year-old victim named Benjamin Wheeler who went to church with Haylon and loved lighthouses.
“The first few nights after the shooting I just didn’t sleep, period,” says Haylon, a married father of three grown children. “One of those nights, I got out of bed and sent an email to a friend and said, ‘I’m really worried about the kids in town and I think we have to do something about it.’ ”
He added, “I started gathering friends I knew would be of a like mind and who were feeling the same thing. Everyone I talked to said, ‘Yes, I’m in.’ We wanted to find ways to make something positive out of an awful situation,” he says.
The goal of Ben’s Lighthouse, says Haylon, is to help kids and teens cope with the trauma of the attack by finding “their own light,” and enabling them to develop empathy, self-awareness and social connections locally and nationwide.
Haylon says that in the immediate aftermath of the attack, many organizations provided invaluable support, but that “six months, then a year, then two years go by and many in our community are still struggling,” he says. “We are trying to figure out how to support kids and families for the long term.”
Youth Activities ‘An Integral Part of the Healing Process’
Six months after he founded Ben’s Lighthouse, Haylon and a growing group of volunteers held the organization’s first event, The Lighthouse Festival, featuring a lighthouse that was built in honor of the victims. The event brought in organizations that specialize in art and music therapy, and more than 2,000 community members attended.
The six-month anniversary could have been a very dark day for this town. Instead, says Haylon, “We decided to bring the community together in a way that could emphasize our community’s strength and resilience.”
Since kids at different ages have different needs, Ben’s Lighthouse has specific programs designed for elementary, middle and high school kids, says Haylon.
For elementary school age children, “it’s all about creating events that show that we are a good, strong and positive community that comes together to help each other out,” says Haylon. “It’s all about putting smiles on kids’ faces and showing them there is help around. They may not understand everything completely, but it puts that impression in the back of their minds.”
For example, Ben’s Lighthouse has hosted ice cream socials for elementary school age children and their families, inviting them to learn about local volunteer organizations. Program Manager Kelly Paredes says learning about volunteer organizations “empowers [children] to be the solution.”
For older students, the organization attempts to build communication skills by paring middle school students with high school mentors in its Scratch Mentor Club. Students work together using computer-based storytelling or improvisational acting tools to provide new ways for kids to communicate their thoughts and feelings while building new relationships with each other. “We’re learning that this is an integral part of the healing process, especially for kids of this age,” Haylon says.
The program also helps the students to build relationships with each other. “There is always a moment during each session when the kids just click,” says Paredes. “They don’t have to worry about anything else but being themselves. It’s quite a relief for them and humbling to see this transformation created through relationship building.”
Overall, says Haylon, “Our kids are learning that they can kind of turn that one awful day and their awful loss into something that’s positive for themselves and for others.”
Lending a Helping Hand Nationwide
High school students say that one of the best parts of being involved with Ben’s Lighthouse has been the outreach service trips they have taken each summer since 2013 to help other areas hit by tragedy. In 2013, adult volunteers took a group of 19 teens to Oklahoma to help clean up the area in the aftermath of devastating tornadoes. In 2014 and 2015, 20 teens and adult volunteers traveled to Colorado to help residents rebuild after the 2013 floods.
This summer, Ben’s Lighthouse plans to travel to Montana’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation to help sustain the Blackfeet Nation, doing anything from rebuilding structures to reading stories to children.
Newtown High School student Gracie Sholtes traveled last July to Colorado, where she and other teens removed debris, created a drainage system and mulched six acres of land. “These may not seem like very important tasks, but to the homeowners they were huge,” she says. “I have never seen such appreciation in my life until this trip.”
Helping others made her feel “amazing,” she says. “Even though my body was sore from working so hard, it didn’t even matter because we had helped improve people’s lives. I can’t even begin to explain this, but it did feel like I was helping myself and those around me. It was just beautiful.”
The dedication the kids show to giving back to the communities they visit is tremendous, says Paredes. “There is a sense of gratitude from the youth stemming from the outpouring of support that our community received during a time of tragedy. They show the commitment to giving that back, to paying it forward.”
Like her fellow volunteers, Sholtes says she was grateful to be able to honor Ben and the other victims with her work. “When you’re a kid, you don’t have to worry about a whole lot. You have to worry about what’s for dinner and hanging out with friends, which is why when a disaster happens, it is our job to work hard to make sure these people don’t have to worry about anything more than keeping themselves happy and safe.”
One of the most powerful moments of the trip came when Sholtes and other students met with survivors of two recent Colorado mass shootings: The 1999 Columbine High School attack and the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting. These survivors have formed The Rebels Project, an organization dedicated to supporting communities struck by tragedies around the country.
“We didn’t want to make them sad because the shooting that happened in our town was such a delicate subject,” Sholtes says. “Once they came in, they were just this great big ball of light. They were all smiles and laughs and so positive, and immediately we felt like we were just meeting up with old friends, only we had never met them before.”
She says she was relieved to talk to other people who understood what she and the people in her town had been through. “After talking to them for about five minutes, I thought to myself, ‘Where have you been my whole life?’ ”
Still Paying It Forward
Haylon says he was stunned when he heard about the Paris terror attacks and the Dec. 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino.
“Everyone here feels a huge pit in their stomach every time something like this happens,” he says. “And it’s happening way too often. It takes time to recover from each one of these shootings.”
He and the board of directors of Ben’s Lighthouse hope to create a “playbook” which tells other communities what they have done to help kids and teens in the aftermath of a tragedy.
“We want to reach out to other communities and help them,” he says. “We want to spread the word and let people know we are here.
“Our ‘playbook’ is still a work in progress as we continue to learn every day, but we are absolutely willing and eager to share what we’ve learned and help in any way we can.”
Ben’s Lighthouse is committed to making sure that participation is not limited by a family’s ability to pay, says Haylon. All programs, including these work trips, are available at no cost to participants. Most funding comes from individual donors who understand the importance of the organization’s work and its long-term impact well beyond Newtown, he says. Tax-deductible contributions may be made on the website, Ben’s Lighthouse or by check to P.O. Box 272, Newtown, CT 06470.